Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Kingfishers nest on or near property my oldest daughter and her family own in Elk River. A small pond feeds a small creek that runs through their land. Kingfishers have been a fixture there for years. Jill says she sees them in season "all the time, every day." Saturday, one of the adult birds was feeding a youngster. We watched from about 200 yards away, not exactly photography distance. I've tried there before to get pictures of those birds. I've tried many places to do that, to get what I consider decent shots. So far, so-so. So, I set up my photo blind beside the creek Monday morning, in place by 6 o'clock. The first kingfisher rattle -- that's how their call is described -- was heard at 6:26, the second at 7:15. If there was a third call before my departure at 10:30, I missed it. Sighting? Haha.
There was much bird activity, finches, wrens, sparrows dropping from trees to the water to bathe or drink. I saw or heard wood-pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, blackbirds, crows, a robin, a nuthatch, an oriole, and a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk. I had finches and the wren sitting atop the blind. Eventually, the non-kingfisher activity was sort of annoying, like rubbing it in. I know better. I've done this. Birds are there or they aren't. No need to be annoyed. Still: "all the time, every day."
I had my i Pad with me to play kingfisher calls. Luring birds close with their recorded voices is an iffy proposition. You don't want to fool around with a bird's territorial defense. This being post-breeding, however, I thought I'd try it. I played the call three times. No response. Not enough play? Too much play? The iPad not being a boom-box, could the bird hear the recording? How good are kingfisher ears? Or maybe the bird just didn't give a darn. The questions were annoying.
With the iPad in my lap I could play solitaire to kill some of that birdless time. Four-square is my game. I was dealt terrible hands. It was annoying. Then, the sun came out and the small, airless canvas blind became warm, then humid and hot. My binoculars steamed up. Very annoying.
I packed up and came home. Jill, my daughter, who had not been home during my visit, called about noon to ask how I had done. She sees the birds all the time. In the years I've been visiting there I've never gotten a good look at a perched bird, much less one feeding young. She sounded almost apologetic, offering that she and two of my grandsons had seen the birds Sunday morning at 9:30, "so they must be there." That annoyed me, too.
I'm going back, though, but I wish it was cooler. The blind is like a sauna. It will be a test for me: How badly do I want the photos?
Here's the hawk. Nice bird. Looks like it's molting.
A large, tough oceanic predator from the Antarctic, related to the gull family, is raising hell in Oklahoma. A South Polar Skua has been reported in Oklahoma City. It’s been photographed attacking Cattle Egrets and Yellow-crowned Night-herons, knocking them out of the air for lunch. This apparently is the fourth or fifth inland record for the U.S., including one some time ago in North Dakota. Skuas are similar to jaegers, both members of a gull subfamily. The three species of jaegers are smaller predators seen annually on Lake Superior at Duluth. Jonathan Alderfer, in his book “National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America," says skuas are “strongly pelagic, extremely unlikely to be seen from shore” much less in Oklahoma. They are occasionally seen off both our eastern and western coasts, Pacific sightings more common. The South Polar Skua (below) I photographed in 2009 was seen during a pelagic trip out of Monterey, California. You can find photos of the bird attacking an egret and a night-heron at http://www.pbase.com/joe_grzybowski/image/151728228 and http://www.tulsaaudubon.org/membersgallery/okc-skua.htm
Here’a a great birding story complete with video and photos that comes from the Birding Community E-bulletin, a report prepared monthly by birder Paul Baicich of Maryland and Wayne Peterson, a Massachusetts birder. They open each report with stories of rare and unusual birds seen in the U.S. in the month past. Everyone might not find excitement in a bird they've never seen before, but hundreds of people traveled to New Mexico to see this bird, and the excitement was very real. Here is the E-bulletin report, received Wednesday, Aug. 7.
The rarity focus for this month is proof that you just never know what can turn up when you’re looking for birds.
On July 7, Matt Daw, a member of the Bureau of Reclamation's Southwestern Willow Flycatcher survey team, was birding at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico when an apparent Rufous-necked Wood-Rail simply walked through the viewfinder of his camera while he was getting video of a cooperative Least Bittern. Go figure!
The Rufous-necked Wood-Rail is a bird often found in coastal mangroves from Mexico southward, into Central and South America. The closest this species normally occurs to the United States is in Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Until Daw’s fortuitous discovery, this species had never been see in the United States.
You can watch Matt Daw's original video of the Least Bittern and see for yourself the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail walking into the background. Daw was so startled that he turned off the camera after a few seconds:
From the moment of Daw’s discovery the event became a birding phenomenon. Birders near and far came to Bosque to see this bird, and fortunately hundreds were rewarded. Visiting birders stationed themselves by an opening in the willows, on the boardwalk, or anywhere in the general vicinity of the original sightings. The Rufous-necked Wood-Rail sometimes worked the muddy shore on the west side of the pond, and occasionally would come out even further. Early or late in the day seemed to be provide the best viewing, although some days the rail was active even in the mid-afternoon.
The bird and some of the birders were even featured on TV, radio, and in the newspapers. The refuge staff was wonderfully accommodating, and the town of nearby Socorro clearly noticed the boost in traffic and increased occupancy at local motels and restaurants. It was a win-win situation.
Amazingly, this same refuge hosted another phenomenal first-record bird in November 2008 when a Sungrebe appeared there. It was reported in the December 2008 E-bulletin:
Fortunately, the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail was far more cooperative and stayed longer than the 2008 Sungrebe did. The wood-rail was last reported on 19 July. At that time, evaporating water in the pond area may have caused the bird to move on.
To view photos by Matt Baumann from the day of Matt Daw's discovery see:
To see national coverage of this amazing avian occurrence on CBS News, see:
The Birding Community E-bulletin is distributed to active and concerned birders, those dedicated to the joys of birding and the protection of birds and their habitats. This issue is sponsored by the producers of quality birding binoculars and scopes, Carl Zeiss Sport Optics:
You can access an archive of past E-bulletins on the website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA):
A pair of Common Loons flew over Lake of the Isles a few days ago, and an observer wrote to ask what they were doing in the city in July. Well, loons do nest in this part of the state. Most are found on waters to the north, but not all. So, these could have been nesters. Or, they could have been unsuccessful nesters, free to roam since loons only nest once a year. If their nest is destroyed or the young loons lost, the adults will not renest. Or, they could have been sexually immature birds. Loons take at least four years to reach breeding age, sometimes as long as seven years. They, too, are free to roam. Seeing them here now is unexpected, and probably more special for that reason. We’ll see many loons on local lakes in the fall as they begin staging for migration. Some lakes to the north will hold hundreds. Late each fall Mille Lacs Lake is one of those. The loon below is in winter plumage.
Whip-poor-will is a bird more often heard than seen. An insect eater active at night, it can drive you crazy with constant and rapid repeat of its mating song – whip-poor-will whip-poor-will, on and on. They are found throughout Minnesota except in the southwest and far western edge. They favor woodlands. River bottoms and wooded valleys are a favorite location. We recently heard and saw them in Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, moving between an oak woodland and prairie marked with scrubby oak bushes. You occasionally can see or flush one from the tree branches on which these birds sleep during the day, stretched out parallel to the branch, well camouflaged. At night they sometimes can be seen on rural roads, identified by the orange glow of their eyes as vehicle headlights hit them. That is how we found and ran over ours. It was an accident. The bird was looking the wrong way, its eyes not visible. We saw it just before it fluttered off the pavement and into the bottom of our van. We stopped to examine it. This is a bird rarely seen in hand. Whip-poor-wills are members of the nightjar family, all with long wings and tails and cryptic coloration. Nightjar, by the way, doesn’t mean what it meant when my grandmother used the word. It actually comes from Europe where a similar bird makes a “jarring” noise, or so I read in “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest Choate. OK, now we have the remains of this bird in front of us. Closed, its bill looks smaller than expected, petite, almost hard to see when the bird is at rest. Opened, however, and it gapes from ear to ear, a huge basket into which the bird sweeps the flying insects it eats. Also cool are the bristles, the stiff feather whiskers on either side of its mouth, helpful in insect capture. This bird was one of three we saw, all roadies. We heard one but short burst of song. I’ve heard them sing all night long, however, not necessarily music even to the ears of a birder. The arrow in the first shot points at the hinge of the mouth.
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